Over the last decade, “terrorism” was linked to one organization and one face: Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Three years after Bin Laden’s death we wonder: who is the new face of terrorism?
Directly after Bin Laden was killed, Al Qaeda officially named its number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, its new leader. Today, his position seems much weaker than that of his predecessor. This is partly due to the use of drones, which have forced Al Qaeda members and their affiliates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) region to remain underground or leave Pakistan's Tribal Areas. Also, internal factors weaken Al Qaeda's central command and control structure.
Today, Al Qaeda operates more like McDonald’s: a chain cooperation with local franchises that do not necessarily always agree with the headquarters’ policies. Examples of its local branches include Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with its leader Nasir Al Wuhayshi, and the Caucasus Emirate of Doku Umarov. These local leaders have challenged Zawahiri’s authority and seem to spend more time worrying about their direct rivals in the region than about waging global jihad against the West. The two Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat an-Nusra illustrate this situation. Both claim to be the sole Al Qaeda representative within Syria. Zawahiri urged ISIS to withdraw from Syria and acknowledged Jabhat an-Nusra as the legitimate Al Qaeda branch in Syria. However, ISIS-leader Al-Bagdadi ignored his command, indicating the loss of power Zawahiri suffered.
Who comes to people’s mind when they think of terrorism today? Probably none of the current Al Qaeda leadership. Instead of looking for the new Bin Laden, we should focus more on the local leaders if we want to get a better picture of Al Qaeda today. This will tell us that we are no longer fighting one man leading his organization from the caves of Tora Bora or some other hide out in Afghanistan or Pakistan. We need to deal with a much more complex situation in which the death of one of the Al Qaeda leaders will even have less of an impact on the organization’s sustainability than that of Osama bin Laden.
The video below shows Liesbeth van der Heide of Leiden University's Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism being interviewed on the question who the new Bin Laden is. [In Dutch]